President Obama said he would pursue a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria in the context of a primetime address that made a forceful case for striking Syria militarily.
The president laid out the case for force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in stark terms, arguing that America's “ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria.”
He argued that if nothing was done to Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, it would send a signal to other regimes that they could get away with using weaponry the world has tried to isolate. He said the weapons could eventually be used against U.S. troops, or against U.S. allies such as Turkey or Israel. And he said a lack of action would embolden Iran as it works on developing a nuclear weapon.
“This is not a world we should accept. This is what we should expect,” he said.
But Obama then made it clear he was hopeful a diplomatic solution offered by Russia and Syria could prevent the U.S. from having to use force against Syria.
He also took some credit for the Russian initiative, in which Syria would puts its chemical weapons under international control.
He said that the "credible threat" of military action had led to "encouraging signs" from Syria. Obama said that he had asked leaders in Congress "to postpone a vote while we pursue this diplomatic path," and said he would work with international allies, including Russia, in a bid to broker a deal by which Syria would turn over its chemical weapons stockpile.
"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," Obama said. "But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."
The dual-track approach betrayed the tricky politics of Syria that have beleaguered the administration's attempts to rally support for a strike.
A number of senators in both parties came out against a strike on Monday and Tuesday, and Obama's odds of winning a House vote appeared even starker. Public opinion is also solidly against military action in Syria.
A trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, as well as the primetime address had originally been intended as opportunities for Obama to rally support. But the last-minute proposal by the Syrian foreign ministry to turn over its previously undisclosed chemical weapons cache put the brakes on the president's sales effort.
Lawmakers are hoping to avoid casting a vote on the resolution, preferring to avoid the unenviable choice of voting either against the public's will or for allowing the Assad regime's chemical weapons use to go unchecked.
But Obama cautioned that diplomacy could still fail, even as he asked for time to pursue an alternative solution.
"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," Obama said.
He also sought to calm nerves and address outstanding worries that have been voiced by lawmakers. He said he had ordered the U.S. military to maintain its current posture to "keep the pressure on Assad."
Obama also insisted that action would not "put us on a slippery slope to another war," flatly ruling out boots on the ground or a prolonged air campaign.
He also dismissed those who suggested that the military action might be the equivalent of a wrist-slap that ultimately did little to affect Assad and his forces.
"Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks," Obama said. "Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."
He emphasized that Assad "does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military" in retaliation for an attack, and said al-Qaeda would not be allowed to gain a foothold if the regime fell.
The president then sought to appeal to his critics on both sides of the aisle.
"To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," Obama said. "To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough."
This story was updated at 10:46 p.m.